In a ruling of vital significance to all landowners, the Court of Appeal has opened the way for eviction of squatters from the likely route of Heathrow Airport’s third runway and given guidance on the right balance to be struck between private property rights and the human rights of those who make their homes on unlawfully occupied land.
Members of the 'Grow Heathrow' group had won local hearts after transforming a polluted site in the village of Sipson, which was favoured by fly-tippers before they moved in in March 2010, into an idyllic market garden. They argued that they had firmly settled on the site and that their eviction would violate their right to respect for their homes enshrined in article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Whilst acknowledging the ‘social value’ of the squatters’ activities on the land, a county court judge had in July 2012 given them six weeks to leave after ruling that the landowner, who had paid £240,000 for the site on which he planned to open a garden centre, was entitled to regain possession.
Dismissing the squatters’ appeal, the Court ruled that the landowner’s right to possession as legal owner of the site outweighed the squatters' article eight rights and that their eviction was a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim'. A stay on the possession order was lifted after the squatters were refused permission to appeal further to the Supreme Court.
Sir Alan Ward accepted that article eight was engaged in the case and that it gave the squatters ‘at least a potential defence’ to the possession action. However, the landowner’s legal right to possession was a ‘very strong factor’ to be put into the balance when assessing the proportionality of eviction.
Even if the squatters – who were described as ‘mature, intelligent and highly articulate individuals’ - could show that they had established their homes on the site, the judge observed that it was difficult to imagine any circumstances in which article eight would confer on unlawful occupiers an unlimited and unconditional right to remain.